The Ones of the ’10s: fun.’s “We Are Young” (feat. Janelle Monáe)

In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.

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fun.- “We Are Young” (feat. Janelle Monáe)

HIT #1: March 17, 2012

STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks

Over the last decade, a new trend started to emerge: songs that get big due to their use in commercials. Music and commercials have gone hand in hand since the beginning of commercials themselves but in the 2010s they seemed to serve a new purpose. Commercials all of a sudden started to become a vehicle for a song’s success. This was especially true for artists in the growing hipster indie scene of the early ‘10s as companies suddenly began using their songs in their commercials. Many times, these songs and artists were largely unknown before their commercial use now being exposed to a wide audience. Thanks to digital technology, anyone can now find that song they liked in that commercial they saw and own it helping to boost that song’s popularity. Seriously, it feels like almost every major indie hit from the last decade got big directly thanks to its use in a commercial of some kind. 

In terms of the pop charts, fun. weren’t the first indie act to breakthrough in the ‘10s. That would be Foster the People who had peaked at #3 in 2011 with their controversial school-shooting tale singalong “Pumped Up Kicks.” (It’s a 6.) But it’s easy to see the success of “We Are Young,” the lone #1 hit from the New York-based indie band and acclaimed alt-R&B artist Janelle Monáe, as the full breakthrough of the hipster indie scene in the mainstream as 2012 saw many indie acts crossing over as electropop club music began receding on the charts leading to new sounds and genres being able to breakthrough. “Pumped Up Kicks” may have been the flash flood but “We Are Young” was when the levee broke on indie entering the mainstream. And it’s a song that largely owes its success to a Glee cover and a Super Bowl commercial. 

The three main members of fun. came together in 2008 all coming from different bands and projects. Frontman Nate Ruess came up with the idea for fun. after the breakup of his previous band The Format. (The #1 single in the US when Ruess was born: The J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold.”) He asked two friends, Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff, to join his new band. Dost was in a band called Columbus and often toured and worked with Ruess in The Format and Antonoff was in another band Steel Train which toured with The Format. 

Together, the three members quickly began working on music releasing their first album Aim and Ignite only a year later in August 2009, a pretty solid work of theatrical glam and baroque rock stylings in the vein of Queen and Electric Light Orchestra. Like with most indie acts, fun. were getting tons of critical love but very little commercial success. Aim and Ignite wound up peaking at #71 on Billboard’s album charts. In 2010, fun. signed with major label Fueled by Ramen, the label home to many of the big emo/pop-punk bands of the 2000s like Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and Panic! At The Disco.

For their next album, the band decided to incorporate more hip-hop influences being influenced by works like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The band wound up finding a hip-hop producer to work with in Jeff Bhasker after Ruess found his name on many hip-hop albums. Bhasker had worked on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and also worked with West on 808s & Heartbreaks and the JAY-Z collaboration Watch The Throne. After “We Are Young,” Bhasker wound up having a nice run as a big-time producer producing a few songs that will eventually wind up in this column. 

The resulting album, Some Nights, is far from hip-hop but it’s a good melding of hip-hop and electronic beats with the stomping theatrical indie and glam rock styles they had become known for. The album wound up going triple platinum becoming a Top 5 album-hit and spawning three major charting hits. And it all began with a song inspired by a drunken night out with a beat that was almost given away to Kanye West and JAY-Z. 

Ruess said he came up with the lyrics to “We Are Young” after what he described as “my worst drinking night of all time.” He had gotten kicked out a cab after vomiting in it, “The cabbie was demanding all this money, and all I could do was stand on the corner with my head against the wall. It took me another day before I was a functioning adult and could actually write down the verses.” Ruess would sing what we had written for Bhasker upon their first meeting to which Bhasker was impressed wanting to see the band before cutting a demo together. 

Bhasker originally had the song’s pounding beat planned for West and JAY-Z’s Watch the Throne album but Ruess and the other members of fun., upon hearing it from Bhasker, decided to use it for “We Are Young.” The group also decided to get a female singer to enhance the song. Initially wanting Rihanna, they eventually got Janelle Monáe, who was friends with Bhasker and liked the song upon listen singing on the bridge. Much like fun., Monáe had also been working long in music before her big breakthrough. (The #1 single in the US when Monaé was born: Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s “Separate Lives.”) Coming from Kansas City, Monáe had spent years garnering critical attention and praise for her albums which melded R&B productions with conceptual themes regarding science fiction and social justice. 

fun. debuted “We Are Young” during their performance at the Coachella festival in April 2011, five months before the song’s release. As Dost recalled to Billboard, the first time playing the song was a weird feeling as the crowd wasn’t sure what to make of it as the band hadn’t done a song like that before. Even after its single release in September 2011, “We Are Young” took a while to become the massive hit it became.

Debuting on the Hot 100 at #53 in December, it would immediately get a major boost thanks to an appearance on an episode of Glee, the massively popular musical teen comedy series on FOX the week it debuted. In the episode, “We Are Young” is sung by the cast members toward the end as a typical everyone coming together ending. 

It was an unusual move for a show like Glee to incorporate new songs that few people had heard but it helped drive up interest in “We Are Young.” Sales skyrocketed for the original song and the Glee version wound up peaking on the Hot 100 at #12.

But there would need to be a bigger platform for “We Are Young” to truly get over the top. Enter Chevrolet who ended up using the song in their advertisement for the Chevy Sonic that aired during Super Bowl XLVI in February. Immediately, “We Are Young” exploded into the mainstream and the radio hitting the top spot a month following Super Bowl XLVI.

What’s weird about “We Are Young” is that the verses and chorus don’t have much to do with each other. In the verses, Ruess is singing about how he screwed up with a girl, he sees her at a bar and says despite his selfish behaviors he will always be there for her which includes taking her home from the bar. But you wouldn’t know that from the chorus and the bombastic tone the song presents. You’d probably think it’s a straight-up youth anthem and how great it feels to be young. In a way, you could stretch the song to being about celebrating ourselves no matter how down you feel but it’s still a stretch. Ultimately, it feels like the song is trying to be so many things at once without much thought for cohesion.

Structure wise, “We Are Young” functions as a roller coaster. It starts out soft and quiet with bright piano, Ruess’ conversational singing, and a galloping drum beat. But once the chorus comes in the song goes to a 10 and stays there throughout until it calms down again in the outro. It’s an interesting structure one that keeps you hooked into the song wondering what’s going to happen. But it’s a structure that doesn’t have the power that it seems to think it has. The chorus is trying so hard to be this anthemic singalong in line with their Queen influence with Ruess putting a lot of power in his singing but it feels slow and doesn’t give you a huge payoff at the end to be satisfied with. And for a talent like Janelle Monáe, she’s basically reduced to being a glorified backup singer here repeating “Carry me home tonight/Just carry me home tonight” for a few times on the bridge. And her vocals are so buried in the mix that you can barely make her out here. 

We see this feeling illustrated in “We Are Young’s” music video showing a riot in slow motion happening at a club while the band is performing. Slow-motion is a good way of describing “We Are Young.” And when Janelle Monáe appears, she seems to be oblivious to the chaos around here. “We Are Young” is the kind of song I should like especially for what it represents in the breakthrough of the indie scene it just doesn’t click with me. But it’s still fine enough.

In any case, “We Are Young” wound up becoming a lasting hit winning Song of the Year at the 2013 Grammys with fun. also winning the Best New Artist award. Both fun. and Janelle Monáe would not get back to #1 after “We Are Young.” In Monáe’s case, she would never make the Top 40 again. She’s continued making high theme albums as recent as 2018’s acclaimed Dirty Computer which netted her an Album of the Year nomination at the 2019 Grammy Awards. Monáe has also turned to acting appearing in big films such as Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Harriet, and the upcoming horror film Antebellum due out in August assuming movie theaters will be reopened by then.

fun. wouldn’t last much longer after “We Are Young.” They netted one more Top 10 hit soon after with the far superior Some Nights title track which peaked at #3 later in 2012. (It’s a 10!) Some Nights also netted “Carry On” which peaked at #20 in 2013. In 2015, the band announced an indefinite hiatus stating it’s not a breakup and plan to reunite when the time is right.

Meanwhile, the band members have done pretty well for themselves solo wise. Dost has been the least active scantly releasing solo music. There isn’t much information about him. Antonoff, on the other hand, has been very active starting a new indie rock project called Bleachers in which he’s released a couple of albums and becoming a big name producer. From what I could look up, Antonoff has produced songs and albums for Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey, Sara Bareilles, and P!nk. As a producer, Antonoff will appear in this column again. As for Ruess, he also began releasing solo music as well as making featured appearances on other songs. In that capacity, he’ll appear in this column again. 

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the pretty funny 2013 Taco Bell ad that aired during Super Bowl XLVII where elderly people go out on the town while a Spanish version of “We Are Young” plays:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s 2019 video of Travis Scott singing along to “We Are Young” in a nightclub:

(Travis Scott will eventually appear in this column)

4 thoughts on “The Ones of the ’10s: fun.’s “We Are Young” (feat. Janelle Monáe)

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